Pineda ‘wow! factor’ makes M’s watchable

Commentary: OK, the Mariners look awful, but Michael Pineda could be rookie-of-year material

April 17, 2011 

As a two-week trend of fundamentally inept baseball continues for the Mariners, fans have splintered into one of two factions:

 • Those who have lost interest in the team and won’t be persuaded to care again until a comprehensive overhaul of the front office begins with CEO Howard Lincoln and president Chuck Armstrong.

 • Those looking for a reason – any reason – to still care about a team whose 4-11 start matches the 1981 Mariners for worst 15-game record in franchise history.

I’m not going to try to change the minds of the fallen-away fans avoiding Safeco Field – it’s the Mariners’ job to sell tickets, not mine – although I must pose a question: If Lincoln and Armstrong are to be held responsible for a baseball team that neither beats its opponents nor entertains its customers, why weren’t Lincoln and Armstrong given at least some of the credit for the Mariners teams that averaged 98 victories a season between 2000 and 2003?

As for fans desperate to cling to something positive during an April that’s mirroring the six months of frustration the Mariners produced last season, well, there’s this: Michael Pineda.

The rookie right-hander is scheduled to pitch today in Kansas City, and while waking up to watch the Mariners strand baserunners and butcher fly balls seems like a certain recipe for spoiling a day, another recipe certain to spoil a day is missing a chance to enjoy Pineda’s precocious talent.

The sample size is so small it’s virtually useless – 13 innings in the major leagues, a 1-1 record in two starts – and yet we’ve already seen enough to realize that when the 6-foot-7, 260-pound intimidator takes the mound baseball becomes less a game than a show.

There’s a certain pleasure in watching a veteran flummox hitters with a nuanced repertoire that takes pitching craftsmanship into the realm of a chess match. Greg Maddux, for instance. To watch Maddux was to appreciate a future Hall of Famer capable of embarrassing the hackers, then outwitting the most disciplined batter in any lineup.

Brilliant as Maddux was, his work never kept you attached to a chair in front of the TV. Maddux had an ability – he advanced it into an art form – to throw borderline strikes that hitters perceived as borderline balls. But he lacked a wow factor.

Definition of a wow factor? It’s when a pitcher winds up and throws a ball so fast that the hitter swings and misses, while everybody in the ballpark, and everybody at home, thinks “Wow!”

Pineda ranks among the American League leaders in ratio of “wows!” to pitches, despite the fact he turned 22 only three months ago. Or maybe it’s because he turned 22 only three months ago. On a team stocked with retreads destined to finish the season elsewhere – here’s to you, Jack Wilson, and you too, Jack Cust – Pineda is a fresh face with unlimited potential.

A year ago, did you know who Michael Pineda was? I vaguely recognized the name of the organization’s 2008 Minor League Pitcher of the Year, but following the progress of kids scattered across a nine-team farm system, from Triple-A Tacoma to the Venezuelan Rookie League, is a chore worthy of a full-time job.

Pineda, in any case, went into last season on the momentum of a 4-2 record achieved at Class A High Desert, where his strained right elbow limited him to 10 starts in 2009. I’m not sure if scouts labeled him a “can’t-miss” prospect, but it doesn’t matter.

What matters is that on a day there are no other compelling reasons to watch the Mariners, Pineda qualifies as a “can’t-miss” starter.

Is it too early to talk of Rookie of the Year contention? Probably, but I’m a little weary of doomsday cynics owning both sides of every conversation. They’ll declare the Mariners hopeless in one breath, then note that any discussion about Pineda as a possible Rookie of the Year is way too premature.

If we’ve already seen enough of the 2011 season to regard the Mariners as a lost cause, then we’ve seen enough of Michael Pineda’s 11 strikeouts to trumpet him as a Rookie of the Year candidate.

Don’t dismiss the value of investing interest in a baseball season around a pitcher. Felix Hernandez’ successful pursuit of the Cy Young Award was the Mariners’ lone highlight of 2010. (If Felix ever regains interest in throwing a curveball that’s got an off-speed component his slider lacks, he’s got plenty of time to repeat.)

Just daydreaming here, but what if Pineda’s confidence builds on the strong effort of his big-league debut at Texas, and stronger effort last Tuesday against the Blue Jays? What if Pineda becomes the sole reason to follow the Mariners? Are they relevant in June? In August?

The late Mark Fidrych made the 1976 Detroit Tigers relevant. The Tigers finished 74-87 that season and offered no other story line besides the impromptu antics of a free-spirited rookie who won 19 games.

By late June, Fidrych was selling out Tiger Stadium whenever he took the mound, and the craziness continued through late August. A rookie pitcher made a losing season in Detroit more than tolerable. He made it unforgettable.

Pineda won’t approach Fidrych’s absurd rookie numbers – 24 complete games, 250 innings pitched – but if the big guy is the best reason to watch the Mariners on April 17, he might be the best reason to pay attention in September.

Ride the boat ashore, Michael. After 11 strikeouts in two starts, I’ve seen enough of this season to sense the rest of it is all about you.

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